Discover the local gastronomy: Cook with the local grannies!

August 31st, 2018 by
Category: Cuisine, Experience

Sasahara grannies

My motto is “when traveling, eat like a local”. No tourist menu for me.
And well, if you want to go for the authentic taste, what better way to dive into a new cuisine than to learn from a local grannie.

Sushi, ramen, tempura etc. are great, but if you want to go off the gastronomy beaten track and like a good explorer also discover the cuisine of a small mountain village, then you should try out this experience. Below is a report of this activity from this summer.

The meeting point is Chino station. From here we get a lift to one of the small rural villages that lie at the foot of the Yatsugatake Mountains.

Yatsugatake Mountains

Seeing the scenery unfold and change as we drive up toward the mountains is part of the fun. The landscape around the station is very urban, but it slowly turns into countryside as we reach an elevation of about 1000m. Terraced rice fields flow in succession, like a staircase rising toward the mountains.

Sasahara village

In about 20 min. we reach a small village mostly made up of old folk houses and traditional kura storehouses. The massive body of the Kita-Yatsugatake right above us, on the opposite side the Japanese Alps parade in the distance. Waiting for us at the village community center are two cute grannies who accompany us to one of their homes, a lovely traditional house which faces a Japanese garden.

Kura storehouse detail

First, they tell us about this area and its climate. This is apparently the coldest place in Japan below Hokkaido. In winter the temperature drops way below zero (colder than  -10°), but there is little snow. The locals, unable to do any farming from November to April, thought up a smart way of preserving food by making the best of the severe winter weather. They use a natural freeze-drying technique to turn agar weed into kanten (a firm vegan jelly-like substance) and make frozen daikon and frozen tofu.
Today we are going to use kanten and frozen daikon as ingredients. They call this gastronomy the culture of frost.

 

The culture of frost:
Kanten, Frozen Tofu, Frozen Daikon and Kampyo

We are also going to use kampyo, a dried vegetable that looks like a string of straw (often used in sushi) and as part of the activity we are going to help making next year’s kampyo.

The main ingredient is this huge gourd called yugao. We peel it and cut in wheels. Afterwards, we put it on a special cutting board with a groove running along its length and push it against the knife to get regular long shaves. We hang the shaves to dry in the sun like laundry . This kanpyo will only be ready in a week, so we get some from last year’s as a gift.

Yugao

Kampyo shaving

Next, we start cooking. We are going to make tenyose, a jelly-like cake made with kanten, both savory (with vegetables and pickles) and sweet (with azuki beans); simmered vegetable with yugao and frozen daikon; vegan sushi with kampyo and other vegetables and soup with hand-made miso and mushrooms picked in the satoyama.
The grannies show us what to do while telling us stories about the village and the local food.

Kampyo sushi

Tenyose is eaten for celebrations and kampyo sushi is prepared for a village festival which takes place around this period.

Summer menu example (July-September)
(azuki tenyose, salad tenyose, sake lees pickles, mushroom miso soup, nota mochi (a sort of rice cake with edamame sauce on top)

When everything is ready, we all sit together at the table and eat. The taste is simple but delicious. There are so many foods I have never seen before and so many textures and tastes I have never tried before.

Lunch together

The locals’ life follows the rhythm of nature, so the food culture varies with every season: the “culture of frost” in winter, wild vegetables picking in spring, farming in the summer and preserves in autumn. The menu is always different!
To be able to see the real Japanese countryside and cook together with the locals is priceless.

Tobuki picking (June)

Details:
Period: all year
Access: 20 min from JR Chino station (pick-up from station available)
Time: 3h
Capacity: Min. 2 persons Max. 30 persons
Price: 5,000 yen + tax /1 person
Includes: activity cost, lunch or dinner
*An English-speaking guide is available at an extra cost
Vegetarian and vegan options are available.
Please inform us in advance if you have any allergy or special dietary requirements.

For further information, contact Chino Tabi at ask8@chinotabi.jp

Let’s visit a blacksmith’s!

May 23rd, 2018 by
Category: Culture Art, Experience, Information

Samurai’s katana with their lethal beauty have fascinated generations of foreigners. In the collective imagination a Japanese sword is synonym of sharpness and the smiths who forge those blades are shrouded in mysticism and legends.

With the end of the samurai era swords stopped being a part of Japanese life, but the unsurpassed techniques which lay behind their forging keep living in modern blades such as kitchen knives and saws. As a matter of fact, Japanese knives are praised by top-level chefs all over the world for their performance.

Hammering the metal

Mass production may have almost taken over the world of blades, yet some stubborn blacksmiths who keep making their knives the old way still stand. In Chino, the area spreading at the foot of the Northern Yatsugatake Mountains, you can meet one of them.
Sadamasa, a local smith’s specialized in blades used in farming and everyday life, has been in business for about 100 years. In the past as many as 10 artisans used to work here, providing the locals with all the blades they needed from sickles to kitchen knives. Nowadays Yusuke, the owner’s son, is the only one left.

Workshop detail

The first time I stepped into his shop, I felt like I trespassed into another world. It looked stilled in time, as if it had not changed one bit since the early Showa era. The walls and tools blackened by years of forging, the smell of steel and iron, the dim light seeping through the windows to illuminate the work space, everything told the story of years of blade-making.
What if I told you that you too can visit this unique dimension? Or even better, you can witness the smith at work and under his guide forge your own Japanese knife?
From now, that’s possible!

There is an activity that over the course of 2 days (3 hours per day) allow you to unveil the secrets of 100 years of Japanese blacksmithing and bring back home a knife made with your own hands. You want to know more? Okay, follow me…

Forge

From Chino station we walk for about 10 minutes until we reach an old shop with a sign saying “Sadamasa”. To welcome us are Yusuke, the smith, and his father, the owner of the shop. We sit at a table on the back of the shop and Yusuke’s father starts telling us about the history of Sadamasa and how his ancestors opened it many years before. After that, Yusuke takes over and introduces us to that day and the following day’s task. He also explains the features of Japanese knives and what makes them so special.

Metal after first hammering

Once we have acquired more knowledge on the acclaimed blades, we prepare for the tasks at hand and cross the yard at the back of the shop that leads to the workshop. When we open the door, we are catapulted in the world of blade-making. I am stricken by the metallic smell, the blackened walls and the silence, full of promises, while I wait in trepidation.

We pass through the old machineries to reach Yusuke’s favorite work position. There he lights the fire of the forge and while we wait for it to burn stronger, he shows us the metal bars we are going to use, iron with a heart of steel. He then puts the hammer into motion, the old-fashioned pistons breaking the silence, and expertly moves the impossibly-red incandescent metal under its weight forth and back, right and left, over and over again, until the bar has taken the semblance of a blade.

Hammering by hand

The blade, at that point cooled in cold water, is passed to us. We are to complete the forging by hand. We plunge the blade in the burning forge, lay it on the anvil and hit it rhythmically with the hammer to achieve a smooth surface. Unexpectedly, brute force doesn’t help you in this process as iron is extremely sensitive and too much force causes small bumps to form on the surface. Luckily, Yusuke corrects our mistakes and the end result is amazing.

Drawing the edges

The next step is to get rid of the oxide film which has formed on the blade by passing it under a shower of sand dust. When that is done, Yusuke takes the blade once more for the normalization process, which requires the skillful hands of the smith. We then cut the excess metal and model the knife final shape.

Finally, we proceed to the last step (of that day), the tempering!
First, the blade is polished so that during the tempering the heat can propagate all the way to the core. Second, we coat the blade with a thick layer of mud and pass it above the fire to let it dry (this is done to protect the blade). At last, we immerge it inside a hot bubbling substance that looks like magma and conclude by letting it sink into a barrel of oil to rest for several hours.

The job for that day done, we leave (but can’t wait to continue on the following day).

———————————————————————————————————–

The next day finally comes and we enter the workshop one last time. The tempered blade is there waiting for us.
During the tempering the steel shrinks, so we start by adjusting the warps with a small hammer; except the warps are really difficult to spot. The same blade which seems perfect when I look at it is found in need of many corrections when Yusuke’s trained eyes inspects it. (Craftsmen have such great abilities!)

After polishing

Putting an edge

 

Sharpening the blade

What comes after is probably the most important process of all: putting an edge to the blade! To avoid overheating the metal, cold water is constantly poured on it during the whole process. There is so much beauty in seeing the steel appear from under the iron, the shinogi (ridge) slowly forming.

At last, we sharpen the edge by grinding it against a wet natural stone. (This too is a very delicate work). The steam rising from the hot blade when it meets the cold wet stone is mesmerizing.

And… it’s done! We have really made a knife with our own hands and it’s glorious. To check the sharpness, we hold a leaf in midair between our fingers and pass the knife through it from above: there is no resistance, as if we’re cutting through air!

The handle applied, we put the knife in a box, say farewell to Yusuke and get ready to leave.
Every time I cook with this knife, I’ll remember this experience.

Putting on the handle

 

Details:
Period: Apr~Nov
Time: 3h x 2 days (total 6h)
Capacity: Min. 1 person Max. 3 persons
Price: 1 Person Making 1 Knife:  JPY 28,000 (tax excl.)/ person
2 Persons Making 1 Knife: JPY 39,000 (tax excl.)/ group.
Includes: activity cost, 1 kitchen knife, English-speaking guide

 

More information on our website: https://chinotabi.jp/en/activity/26/

To reserve contact us at ask8@chinotabi.jp

The final result

Onsen Town Togura-Kamiyamada’s Newest English Map and How To Videos

March 18th, 2018 by
Category: Cuisine, Experience, Information, Onsens (Hot Springs), Sightseeing

Nagano’s Onsen Town Togura Kamiyamada now has its 3rd generation Walking Map & Restaurant Guide as well as 4 PR videos.

The new Onsen Town Togura-Kamiyamada “How To” video series,

Video 1: How to Enjoy an Onsen Town 

Showcasing several of Togura-Kamiymada’s unique shops as well as a feature on Zukudashi Eco Tours.  Come wear a yukata robe, slip on the wooden geta slippers, and explore our onsen town!

Video 2: How to Enjoy Local Food

Shows how to order (and eat) at some quintessential types of Japanese restaurants, like soba noodles, yakitori, izakaya and even ‘horumon’ (not for the faint of heart). Plus a local Nagano favorite, oyaki dumplings and the video has a feature on Togura-Kamiyamada’s legendary Kohaku including an interview with Susa-san about our area’s signature ‘oshibori udon’ noodles.

Video 3: How to Stay at a Ryokan

Curious about staying at a traditional ryokan while visiting Japan, but not sure what to do during your stay?  From the kaiseki-style dinner, soaking in the onsen bath, and your futon spread out on the straw tatami mat, this video explains how to make the most of your ryokan experience.  It also shows many of the great inns here in Togura-Kamiyamada.  Don’t miss the seeing one of our town’s geisha, Takeshi, showing the proper way to wear a yukata robe.

Video 4: How to Bathe in an Onsen 

When in Japan, one of the can’t miss experiences is taking an onsen bath. But the process can be a bit intimidating. (Yes — as local onsen expert Tonegawa-san explains in the video, you have to be naked.) Learn these simple tips of onsen etiquette and bath like a native. The video also explains the unique characteristics of Togura-Kamiymada’s hot spring mineral water (beware bathing with silver jewelry!), featuring a special interview with Goro-san, president of the Kamiyamada Onsen Company.

Escaping the Slopes for a tour of Japan’s Samurai Past

February 15th, 2018 by
Category: Events, Experience, Information, Sightseeing

Matsushiro’s white plaster walls and thatch roofs are reminiscent of a former Japan.

During Nagano’s Lantern Festival, I visited Matsushiro with a group of tourists from Hakuba to enjoy some of the area’s traditional activities. We walked through the streets of this quiet castle town to learn more about its samurai past.
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New Years Bonfire Tradition: Suzaka’s “Dondo-Yaki”

December 29th, 2017 by
Category: Cuisine, Culture Art, Events, Experience, Information, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

After New Years, neighborhoods traditionally gathered the spent bamboo, dharma dolls and other decorations, piled them up and held a bonfire for an event called “Dondo-Yaki”.  While this tradition is becoming less common in urban areas, many communities in Nagano continue to put on “Dondo-Yaki”, usually around the holiday weekend at the beginning of January.

Suzaka Town’s “Dondo-Yaki” for 2018 will take place on Monday 08-Jan (“Coming of Age Day” national holiday) on the grounds of Suzaka Elementary School.  The bonfire will be lit at 5pm.  Participation is free.

It is said that if you eat mochi (sticky rice) roasted over the “Dondo-Yaki” bonfire, you will have good health for the year.  Many participants bring their own mochi rolled up in colorful balls and stuck to a branch for roasting over the coals.

Suzaka’s Guesthouse KURA can provide more details.  On Sunday, they will make mochi and prepare to roast it at the bonfire, so guests can enjoy a full “Dondo-Yaki” weekend.

Karuizawa’s 19th Annual International Curling Championship

December 20th, 2017 by
Category: Experience, Information, Report

Morozumi, skip of the SC Karuizawa Club, curls the stone as his teammates wait to sweep it.

Curling, called “chess on ice,” is a sport that originated in Scotland. Two teams take turns sliding large stones over a bed of ice, attempting to put their stones closest to the center of the home circle. Teammates have brooms to sweep the ice in front of the stone, affecting the stone’s direction and speed. Beyond the actions of curling the stone and sweeping the ice, curling isn’t particularly athletic, rather a game of prediction and strategy. The only tools at the player’s disposal are their stones, their wits and their brooms.

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Picking Grapes in Early Autumn

October 4th, 2017 by
Category: Cuisine, Experience, Information, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

One of Nagano’s original grape varieties, Nagano Purple!

One of the joys of early autumn is harvest season, when fruit hangs low on the tree and is ripe for picking. During September and early October, you can pick grapes in vineyards throughout Nagano.

There are a wide variety of grapes to choose from. You’ll be surprised by the different flavors of Delaware, Niagara, and Steuben grapes, as well as the monstrous size of Kyoho and Nagano Purple. Don’t forget fan favorites like Shine Muscat!
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Visitors From All Over the World Experience Japanese Culture in Matsumoto

October 3rd, 2017 by
Category: Events, Experience

Last month, Nakamachi Street in Matsumoto put on a lively, hands-on “Japanese Culture Experience” event where visitors could try all sorts of traditional Japanese crafts and activities. Over 150 international tourists and foreign residents came over the course of the two-day event making Nakamachi one lively place to be!

The main event venue: Nakamachi’s Kurassic-kan

To add to the atmosphere, the main activities were held at the beautiful Kurassic-kan, a former sake brewery that was turned into community center. Here, visitors eagerly learned how to fold origami into intricate shapes, write their names in Japanese characters using calligraphy brushes, and enjoyed the grace of the Japanese tea ceremony. Outside in Kurassic-kan’s plaza, Matsumoto’s resident ninja taught kids how to shoot down imaginary enemies with ninja blowgun darts and the city’s one-and-only rickshaw puller offered people shorts rides and photos on his rickshaw.

Learning the traditional tea ceremony

Writing Japanese characters with a brush and ink

Taking a ride around Matsumoto on the rickshaw

Matsumoto’s resident ninja

Visitors also got to try wearing yukata/kimono (thanks to Matsumoto’s Hanakomichi kimono rental service), bang out thundering drum beats with the big taiko drums set up outside, play with all kinds of old-fashioned toys like stilts and kendama, and even taste Nakamachi’s specially brewed sake!

That’s still not all — several shops in Nakamachi had their own activities like trying on geta (a traditional Japanese form of footwear), local food and drink tastings, and trying out the shamisen. One shop taught people how to play a traditional geisha game called konpira fune-fune which is a simple yet challenging concentration game where players must tap a saucer and pillow in the correct pattern along to the beat of shamisen music.

The konpira fune-fune game in front of the Itoya shop

Giving the “take-uma,” a.k.a. stilts, a try

Personally, I went to the event on both days, and even though I’ve been living in Japan for a few years now, I still got to try many new things: Kimono, rickshaw rides, geisha games, ninja blowguns… But, although all the activities were engaging and fun, perhaps the best part was meeting new people from all over the world and interacting with the Matsumoto locals! I met a cyclist from Andorra (that tiny country between Spain and France) who had bike all the way from Aomori, a photographer from India, tourists from Egypt, and a researcher from England.

In the end, the whole event became more than just an event about sharing Japanese culture — it was a great international culture exchange opportunity for everyone! Let’s just hope we see more events like this in Matsumoto and other places in Nagano in future 🙂 Thank you Nakamachi!

Hands-on Japanese Culture Experience Event in Matsumoto (Sep. 6 & 23)

August 29th, 2017 by
Category: Events, Experience


Visit the Nakamachi in downtown Matsumoto on September 6 or 23 for a fun Japanese culture experience for the whole family! This event features several hands-on Japanese arts and crafts activities such as Japanese calligraphy, traditional tea ceremony, and origami; as well as other interactive activities like sake tasting, kimono rental, and rickshaw rides. Most activities are free and you will receive a free souvenir for participating. As a bonus, several of the shops around Nakamachi will also be offering different cultural activities or games. See below for an overview of the event program and where you can get the official details, event flyer, or see the event on Facebook!

Event Details

Place: Kurassic-kan in Nakamachi, Matsumoto
Date & Time: Sep. 6 and Sep. 23, 10 am – 4 pm (times for activities at the shops differ. Check the event flyer or webpage)
Event webpage: http://nakamachi-street.com/en/experiencedays/
Event on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/events/1607791399271217/
* Local high school students, local guides, and volunteers will also be present to help with translation and interpretation.

Get the official PDF flyer here which includes a map and all activity details:

Click to download the full event flyer (PDF)

List of main activities at the Kurassic-kan:

  • Origami folding
  • Japanese calligraphy
  • Japanese Tea Ceremony (traditional way of making matcha green tea)
  • Japanese folding fan decorating
  • Play with old-fashioned and traditional Japanese toys
  • Sake tasting with Nakamachi’s original-brand sake
  • Kimono (yukata) and ninja costume rental (paid activity)
  • Rickshaw rides around Nakamachi (paid activity, discount with kimono rental)
  • Ninja blowgun activity (paid activity, free with ninja costume rental)

List of shops offering activities around Nakamachi:

  • Geiyukan: Try plaing the shamisen, a traditional Japanese music instrument.
  • Kuriya: Make fresh wasabi from real wasabi root.
  • Senri: Japanese wine, sake, amazake, and juice tasting
  • Yamahei: Introduction of some Japanese local foods
  • Yaguchi: Try wearing geta, a traditional form of Japanese footwear.
  • Ihara: Chopsticks and beans game
  • Itoya: Play the konpira fune-fune game, a traditional game played at geisha banquets, and other activities.
  • Okinado Kura Branch: Try playing the Japanese taiko drum. Also, exhibit of traditional tools used for making Japanese confections/sweets
  • Temariya: Free Japanese tea

Leisurely, Luxurious Train Ride: Rokumon

August 3rd, 2017 by
Category: Cuisine, Experience, Sightseeing

From Nagano City to Karuizawa, the resort town on the eastern edge of the prefecture, it is a blazingly fast 30 minutes by Shinkansen bullet train.

Red carpet treatment to board Rokumon at Karuizawa Station

Or, as a luxurious alternative, you could take Shinano Railway’s special Rokumon train and enjoy a leisurely 2 hour 20 minute ride through Nagano’s scenic countryside.

Classy interior

For those that care to indulge, you can partake in a gourmet meal along the way:  French featuring cheese from Tomi City’s esteemed Atelier de Fromage, on the run from Karuizawa to Nagano, or kaiseki-style Japanese from Obuse’s famous restaurant Suzuhana on the return.

I had the opportunity to ride from Karuizawa to Nagano.  The warm wood interior furnishings of the train and the friendly smiles of the attendants combined with the carefully prepared dishes featuring an abundance of local ingredients would have made the trip a perfect 10 for me.

Friendly Staff

However, what made riding Rokumon extra special was the enthusiastic hospitality we received along the way, from local preschoolers to the Station Master at Ueda.

Rokumon — the perfect unhurried way to enjoy Nagano’s countryside.